Commentary

NATO Expansion: Folly on Stilts

Advocates of expansion act as though NATO is a political honor society that the nations of Central and Eastern Europe are entitled to join because they have embraced democracy. But NATO is a military alliance, and the decision to extend U.S. security guarantees is serious business, not cost-free political symbolism. American troops might very well die defending those countries.

Even the first round of expansion would saddle the United States with expensive, dangerous, and probably unsustainable military obligations. It could entangle America in murky, parochial conflicts among the Central and East European countries.

For example, relations between Poland and neighboring Belarus are already tense and growing worse by the week. Hungary, another of the nations invited to join in the first round, has troubled relations with three of its neighbors—Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia.


Given NATO’s new mission of being Europe’s baby sitter and intervening in internal conflicts such as those now convulsing the former Yugoslavia, even remaining in the current version of the alliance is folly from the standpoint of American interests.


Do Americans really want to risk having U.S. troops in the middle of an obscure conflict between Hungary and Slovakia, or Poland and Belarus? NATO expansion entails that danger.

Worse, the Clinton administration is contemplating additional rounds of expansion. At some point even the Baltic republics will likely be invited to join—something that Russian officials have stated is intolerable. Such a step would provoke a new cold war and risk a military collision with a nuclear-armed great power.

The initial round of expansion has already damaged U.S.-Russian relations. Moscow is responding to NATO’s encroachment by forging closer ties with both Iran and Iraq and undermining U.S. policy in the Middle East whenever possible. Still more worrisome are the growing political and military links between Russia and China. If the United States jeopardizes friendly relations with Russia merely to give impractical security guarantees to a collection of small Central and East European states, that will go down in history as one of the worst policy blunders ever committed by a great power.

Given NATO’s new mission of being Europe’s baby sitter and intervening in internal conflicts such as those now convulsing the former Yugoslavia, even remaining in the current version of the alliance is folly from the standpoint of American interests. Expanding NATO would be folly on stilts.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. His latest book is NATO Enlargement: Illusions and Reality.